Oyster fishermen sue feds over opening of Bonnet Carre Spillway

The off-bottom oyster project by the Department of Marine Resources has produced a pretty...
The off-bottom oyster project by the Department of Marine Resources has produced a pretty impressive crop of boutique oysters for new businesses in the first harvest after the spillway disaster.(wlox)
Updated: Jan. 16, 2020 at 10:17 PM CST
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ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. (WVUE) - A group of oyster fishermen in St. Bernard Parish wants the U.S. government to compensate them for opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway. They say it’s the Army Corp of Engineer’s fault their oysters died and their reefs were damaged.

Though they’re in favor of the spillway openings last year, they’ve filed a lawsuit explaining why they should be paid for it.

Oyster boats line the dock near Shell Beach.

“I got saltwater running through my veins. I love this business. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” said fourth-generation oyster fisherman Robert Campo.

Campo has little need for these boats, though, with no crop to harvest.

“It’s done. I mean, they’re all dead,” said Campo.

His oyster beds and reefs are damaged, too. They haven’t made money for him since the second opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

Open for more than 100 days, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries says the spillway’s freshwater decimated the oyster population and their delicate ecosystem.

“Sometime in September is the last time we sold oysters,” said fellow oyster fisherman and oyster broker Kurt Pannagle. “The way things are going now, I don’t think we’ll be back in business for five years.”

Pannagle joined Campo in what they hope becomes a class-action lawsuit against the US government.

“The lawsuit is based on the Takings Clause of the US Constitution which states private property shall not be taken by the government without compensation," started Attorney Camilo Salas.

”Private property being impacted fishermen’s dead oysters and now-defunct beds. I think the government should compensate me for this and every other oyster fishermen out there," said Campo.

Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries’ Patrick Banks says sampling showed significant mortality closest to the spillway and less and less as you approached the marshes of St. Bernard.

“The impacts to the industry, in general, was heavy but it’s not like every oyster in every spot was killed,” explained Banks.

Banks says their monitoring indicates definite improvements in salinity and what he calls recrutiment, or the rebirth of baby oysters, on some of the reefs they watch.

“It’s not to the levels that we would hope but we have to remember a lot of the adult oysters did die during this spillway event,” Banks explained. “It may take a while for that resource to really recover.”

That’s what these fishermen fear.

“What are we gonna do for the next four years?” wondered Campo.

Yet Banks doesn't believe it will take that long. He says it only takes two years for an oyster to mature.

“I think that maybe a little bit of a stretch in terms of back in business but certainly a while before they have a stable source of oysters, season after season,” he said.

Banks says Louisiana submitted a federal grant application, requesting fisheries disaster money. He says that was approved, but it's unclear how much money they'll be awarded. Banks says the plan is to use some of that money to help the oyster industry and restore resources.

Fox 8 reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers about the lawsuit. Representatives say they do not comment on pending litigation.

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